I love to go to the steam room (or if there isn’t
one, the sauna) after a workout. But I’ve
always wondered: Do they really help? Or
rather: I sweat a lot in the steam room, and
it’s obviously doing something to my body,
but what exactly are its benefits? Or is it actually
damaging my body?
You know I like to be emphatic in these
columns, Ricardo, so I wish I could tell
you that, yes, steam
rooms and saunas
will cleanse your body
of noxious substances
and, when combined
with regular steak
and chocolate cake,
will enable you to
live to 126. Or, alternatively
not fussy, I just want
something definite to
say), that the sauna
is a cabinet of death.
Once again, however,
I find myself stymied
by intransigent reality. The scientific
evidence, sorted into piles,
breaks down as follows:
1. Steam rooms and saunas are good for you.
2. Steam rooms and saunas are bad for
3. We can’t decide about steam rooms
and saunas. Give us another hour, and see
if you can rustle up some baby oil and a
My drab elaboration on these conclusions is provided below. You’ll notice I treat saunas and steam rooms together, although they’re two separate things. Saunas typically operate at 176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of 10 to 20 percent, whereas steam rooms involve lower temperatures and much higher humidity (i.e., steam). Now, nearly all the research out there focuses on saunas, and one ought not to assume that what’s true of saunas will in all cases be true of steam rooms. Nonetheless, the two share a key feature, namely, they both make you sweat—perhaps insufficient commonality for a peer-reviewed journal but good enough for me. We proceed to the results:
Good: “Very few sudden deaths take place
during or after sauna bathing” (American
Journal of Medicine, 2001). This may not
strike you as a ringing endorsement, but
at one time saunas were thought to be
associated with sudden death, arrhythmia,
and heart attacks. Sudden death and heart
attacks are now off the list. I hope this fills
you with a golden glow.
Bad: “Almost all (221 of 228) hyperthermia
deaths in Finland from 1970 to 1986
took place in saunas” (same source). This
may undermine any confidence derived
from the previous item, but perhaps it helps
to know most of the overheated dead were
middle-aged men under the influence of
alcohol—admittedly a pretty large group.
Good: One study says sauna therapy
helped a woman who had a “chronic, debilitating
multi-system disorder of 20 years’
duration” due to toxic chemicals discontinue
her medications and return to work. Another
says saunas improved the condition of firefighters
left with neurological problems after
PCB exposure. The assumption appears to
be that these people excreted the harmful
substances in their sweat, which maybe they
did. Then again, you can excrete harmful
substances in other perfectly ordinary ways,
and if it’s sweat you want, you can get plenty
through exercise. But how much fun is
Sounds good but isn’t really: You
can lose a pound or more of
water in the sauna. But once
out you gain the weight right
Good: Saunas can
help people with chronic
heart failure, asthma,
or chronic bronchitis;
reduce pain and
in the arthritic; and
to the common cold.
They also decrease
lung congestion and
seem to lower blood pressure
in those with hypertension.
Bad: Saunas are a bad idea during a
high-risk pregnancy, and are also contraindicated
for various cardiac conditions other
than chronic heart failure. Clearly if you’re
a heart patient thinking sauna, you’d first
better ascertain exactly what you’ve got.
Can’t tell: Numerous Websites, among
them Wikipedia, claim research by the
University of Munich’s Institute of Medical
Balneology and Climatology shows that
saunas and steam rooms confer benefits
ranging from improved sleep to softer skin.
But good luck finding a citation to back this
up. Despite determined effort, including
correspondence with actual Germans, my
assistant Una could confirm only that the
Institute of MB&C exists but is now called
the Institute for Health and Rehabilitation
Sciences. Beyond that, zilch.
By now maybe you’re saying: This is all
very interesting, but I’m not pregnant and
don’t have asthma, PCB poisoning, or any
of the other baleful conditions alluded to
above. I just like steam baths and saunas.
Are they good or bad?
That’s what I’m trying to tell you. If
you’re in good health, a sauna (and maybe
a steam bath, although in the absence of
more data one needs to be cautious on this
point) won’t kill you, possibly may help
(fewer colds), and in any case will leave
you, however briefly, with a sense of radiant
well-being, a circumstance to be cherished
in this melancholy age. What more
do you want?
Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, StraightDope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.